"The Salem Witch Trials 1692" and ​"Salem Stories" Premiere at the PEM this September

I have to admit to getting pretty excited when I recently learned about two new exhibitions that will be opening at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts this fall. Beginning on September 26 and focused on Salem’s rich and storied history, The Salem Witch Trials 1692 and Salem Stories will be brimming with the stories, people, and objects that can only be found in Salem, Massachusetts - a unique city with a fascinating past and a promising future. 

For the first time in three decades, the world’s largest collection of authentic materials and documents will be on view in The Salem Witch Trials 1692 giving visitors the chance to explore rarely-exhibited documents from PEM's Phillips Library alongside objects from the museum's vast collection to learn the true stories of the tragedy as told through the voices of those directly involved. Presented in 26 vignettes that show why Salem, Massachusetts is so extraordinary, Salem Stories will feature more than 100 of the museum's works including paintings, sculpture, textiles, decorative arts, photographs, natural history specimens, manuscripts, posters, books, eyewitness accounts, and even a murder weapon.

The Salem Witch Trials 1692
Tompkins Harrison Matteson's, Examination of a Witch, 1853. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Mark Sexton and Jeffrey R. Dykes.

Like so many others, I have always been fascinated by the hysteria that swept through the North Shore of Massachusetts which resulted in the jailing of close to 200 people and the deaths of over 25 innocent men, women and children. The deadliest witch hunt in the history of colonial North America, the Salem Witch Trials began in the spring of 1692 in Salem Village (now Danvers) when a group of young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several of the local women of practicing witchcraft. 

When the accusations first began to circulate, local magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin were called upon to question both accusers and accused to determine if there was cause for a trial. They were eventually joined in this task by officials from Boston, including Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, but as the hysteria grew and spread following the confessions of several accused witches, the naming of more and more witches began to overwhelm the jail and court system. On May 27, 1692, Massachusetts Governor William Phips created a court of Oyer and Terminer (meaning “to hear” and to “decide”) and tasked it with presiding over the witchcraft cases for Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex counties as arrests were made in numerous towns beyond Salem Town and Salem Village. Most notably, the town of Andover was home to more accused witches than any other in the area as fingers were pointed at more than 40 residents. 

On June 2, 1692, the newly-appointed court convened in Salem Town with William Stoughton, Massachusetts' new Lieutenant Governor as Chief Magistrate, Thomas Newton as the Crown’s Attorney prosecuting the cases, and Stephen Sewell as clerk along with a number of other prominent men from the area. On the court's first day in session, it handed down it's very first guilty conviction against Bridget Bishop, a local widow known for her gossipy ways and promiscuity. A mere eight days later, Bridget was hanged on Proctor’s Ledge - later to become known as Gallows Hill - in Salem Town.
Portrait of Judge Samuel Sewall, John Smibert, 1733. Sewall, brother of Court Clerk Stephen Sewall, was one of the 9 judges who sentenced people to death in the Witch Trials. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by John Koza.

Following Bishop's death, five more people were hanged in July, another five in August and eight more went to the gallows in September. Additionally, the elderly Giles Corey was pressed to death by stones after he refused to enter a plea at his arraignment. The penalty for standing mute was torture so a judge ordered “peine forte et dure”, a method of torture by which heavier and heavier stones are stacked upon the chest of the accused until they either plea or die. Though the torture took several days, Giles refused to plead ensuring that his two sons-in-law would inherit his land rather than it being ceded to the government upon his conviction. Following his death, Giles' wife Martha was hanged on September 22, 1692 and another seven accused witches died in the Salem Jail before the madness ended.
Giles Corey Memorial Bench at the Salem Witch Trial Memorial on Charter Street. Photo credit: Linda Orlomoski 

In 1693, after his own wife had been accused of practicing witchcraft, Governor Phips finally prohibited further arrests, dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer and moved the trials to a higher court that did not permit the use of spectral evidence. In May of 1693, Governor Phips pardoned all accused witches that were still in custody and the Salem Witch Trials effectively ended. 

Many colonists had begun to express misgivings during the trials and officially began to express some guilt almost immediately in the aftermath. In 1702, barely a decade after the last victim was accused, the trials were declared “unlawful” and in 1711, Massachusetts passed a bill that officially cleared the names of all of the named witches. Surviving victims and their families received financial restitution in 1712, although the state did not issue a formal apology until 1957. To this day - over 325 years later - the complex drama of the Salem Witch Trials and its themes of injustice and the frailties of human nature continue to fascinate us. 

Samuel Parris and John Hathorne, Examination of Martha Cory, March 21, 1692. Photo Credit: ©2020 Peabody Essex Museum, Photograph by Kathy Tarantola 

Records during the trial were meticulously kept and preserved and many of them are part of the PEM's Phillips Library Collection. In The Salem Witch Trials 1692 visitors will have the chance to see some of those rarely-exhibited, light-sensitive materials including the original 1692 death warrant for the execution of Bridget Bishop as well as petitions from the accused, invoices from the jail keeper, direct testimony from accusers and the physical examinations of the accused.

Copy of an account for payment submitted by William Dounton, jailkeeper, December 1693. Photo Credit: ©2020 Peabody Essex Museum, Photograph by Kathy Tarantola

Among the items on view is the powerful petition of Mary Easty (also spelled Esty), who was hung in the last group on September 22, 1692. Written in a careful script, the petition conveys her last words to those who accused her right before she was sent to the gallows. “I petition to your honors, not for my own life, for I know I must die. And my appointed time is set. But the Lord, he knows it is, that if it be possible, no more innocent blood may be shed.” Easty was the sister of Rebecca Nurse who was hanged on July 19, 1692.

Mary Easty's Memorial Marker at Proctor's Ledge Memorial. Photo credit: Rebecca Brooks

“I hope that people can look at the documents and the objects and realize that these were real people, people like you and me,” said Dan Lipcan, Head Librarian at PEM’s Phillips Library. “These people had emotions and fears just like we do. They were innocent and they knew it and there was nothing they could do about it.”

The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, 1677, John Webster. Photo Credit: ©2020 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

The exhibition also includes books to add context to the documents, including a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum. Usually translated as The Hammer of the Witches, the book is the best known treatise on witchcraft that was written by the Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer (under his Latinized name Henricus Institoris) and first published in the German city of Speyer in 1486. On the other end of the spectrum, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft - a critical and skeptical review of evidence for witchcraft - was written in 1677 by John Webster, an English minister, physician and chemist who was known for his controversial works and skepticism of witchcraft. 
Tompkins Harrison Matteson's, Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft, 1855. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Mark Sexton and Jeffrey R. Dykes.

Paired with the documents are personal possessions relating to those involved, such as a wood and sealskin trunk dating to 1670 that once belonged to Jonathan Corwin, the judge who resided at the 17th-century building now known as The Witch House. There are also two original beams from the Salem Jail and an 1855 painting from PEM’s collection, Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft by Tompkins Harrison Matteson. The painting summarizes in one scene a number of dramatic incidents that occurred during the days of George Jacobs Sr.’s examination and trial. Most of the action focuses on the dramatic moment when his own granddaughter, Margaret, testified against him. Placed in the center of the painting, she kneels and points her finger directly at her grandfather, who responds by pleading his innocence with upraised arms. Also included in the exhibition are two 17th century oak walking sticks that were used by George Jacobs, Sr. prior to his death.
1644 Brass Sundial owned by John Proctor, hanged on August 19, 1692. Photo Credit: (c) 2007 Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Jeffrey R. Dykes.
Turned great chair owned by Philip and Mary English, accused witches who escaped jail and fled to New York. Photo Credit: (c) 2015 Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Walter Silver.

“These objects emphasize the human scale of this tragedy,” said Dean Lahikainen, The Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Art. “At the same time, they shine a light on Salem’s rare 17th-century furnishings and material culture.” 
1679 Valuables cabinet owned by Joshua and Bathsheba Pope, accusers during the Witch Trials. Photo Credit: Photo by Dennis Helmar
 
Tape Loom owned by Rebecca Putnam, an accuser of Rebecca Nurse. Photo Credit: ©2020 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

A team of curators and outside experts collaborated on the exhibition, which includes the background of key players in history, as well as a memorial wall dedicated to the victims where visitors will be asked to reflect on the loss as well as the ignorance, intolerance and fear that led to the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.

Salem Stories

Though the first things that probably come to mind when someone mentions Salem, Massachusetts might be Halloween, witches and everything spooky, the city can claim many other remarkable national and international achievements which have been overshadowed by the tragic events of 1692-93. It was at Lyceum Hall that Alexander Graham Bell completed the first successful long-distance telephone call in 1877; Parker Brothers produced Monopoly and thousands of other well-loved board games there; and in 2013, President Obama signed legislation recognizing the city as the birthplace of the United States National Guard. In Salem Stories, the A–Z structure creates an accessible and entertaining way to engage with Salem’s history - from past to present day - by highlighting many of Salem's remarkable achievements.

Native American Deerskin Pouch, late 17th-mid-18th century. Photo Credit: ©Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photograph by Mark Sexton.

Salem Stories starts with “A is for Always Indigenous” to acknowledge the Native communities who have lived for millennia on the land where the museum now sits. It ends with "Z is for Zoology" coinciding with the return to the galleries of a leatherback turtle specimen captured in 1885, a favorite of longtime visitors. 

Leatherback Turtle collected live off Rockport, Massachusetts, 1885. Photo Credit: ©2020 Peabody Essex Museum, Photo by Bob Packert

“Salem is truly a fascinating city filled with many stories of local, national and international significance,” says Karina Corrigan, The H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art. “This is a local story told by locals.” 

Salem has long been a place of opportunity for immigrants, with every wave of arrivals bringing new ideas, culinary traditions, and values, expanding the city’s cultural richness, and bolstering its economy. “I is for Immigrants” celebrates that long history, from the Polish, Irish and French-speaking Canadian immigrants in the 19th century to the more recent arrivals from the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations who now call the city home. 

Sarah Parker Remond, circa 1865. Photo Credit: ©2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

“R” is for Remond Family” introduces visitors to the story of John Remond, who came to Salem in 1798 as a young boy from the Caribbean island of Curaçao aboard the Salem ship Six Brothers. Remond would become the patriarch of one of the most influential free Black families in early 19th century New England. All members of his family belonged to local and national anti-slavery societies, and his children Sarah Parker Remond and Charles Lenox Remond became renowned international abolitionist orators. 

Corner of Derby and Herbert Streets in the Aftermath of the Great Salem Fire of 1914. Photo Credit: PEM

The exhibition also includes some creative surprises. “C is for Caring for our Community” chronicles how the city has come together in times of crisis, from the outpouring of support after the Great Salem Fire of 1914, to the more recent COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition will continue to evolve, just like the city itself, and new Salem stories will be added along the way. In fact, “Y is for You” invites the community to share their own unique stories of the city. 

King Penquin captured live off the Falkland Islands, about 1820. Gift of Captain George Hodges, 1821. Photo Credit:PEM

The large team of curators who collaborated to create the exhibition have more than 150 years of experience working at PEM and have called the city home for many years. “But even we learned new things about our city,” says Corrigan. “Whether you are from Essex Street or Estonia, I think you are going to discover something new about Salem.” 

Parker Brothers' The Wonderful Game of Oz, about 1921. Photo Credit: ©2007 Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Jeffrey R. Dykes. 

The Salem Witch Trials 1692 will be on view through April 4, 2021 while Salem Stories will be on view through October 3, 2021. If you have the chance to visit, share your impressions of this experience using: #SalemStories and #1692WitchTrial on your favorite social media outlet.

Lastly, it shouldn't go without saying that one of the biggest achievements in Salem that has made it the outstanding destination that it is, was the founding of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in 1799, a museum that - over the last 20 years - has distinguished itself as one of the fastest-growing art museums in North America. With the distinction of being the country’s oldest continuously operating museum, at its heart PEM has a mission to enrich and transform people's lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. Case in point are these two terrific upcoming exhibitionss that will give visitors a closer look at the 1692 witch trials that made Salem infamous as well as other many remarkable achievements that elevate Salem to more than just "The Witch City". 

For more information on hours, admission costs, more exhibitions and public safety protocols, call 866-745-1876 or visit pem.org.

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